Culture’s Role in Organizational Changes that STICK:
Organizational culture change is becoming a mandate in most companies and industries amid rapid technology and workforce expectations. Whether leading change due to a merger, a new CEO, digital transformation – experts agree “culture” is the key to ensuring the change takes hold and sticks. No surprise here,
What experts don’t agree on – is HOW to ensure that your change journey is not one of backsliding… once the “program” is complete or the “consulting firm” departs, the culture pulls you back to old habits.
(we’ve all experienced this if we’ve tried to lose weight or start an exercise regime, or been through a large-scale change effort.)
Company culture is a STRONG FORCE – social habits and norms that aren’t easily de-coupled from the leaders and employees who have shaped them.
In two decades of helping clients shape culture change – I have seen hundreds of examples of “back-sliding” – and many outright failure in these efforts.
Which INCREASES voluntary ATTRITION (often of your best people), and lowers trust among those left behind.
There’s alot at stake in getting it right.
Let’s look at 3 must-do lessons to support a healthy transformation —
One that builds trust, confidence in the future, and the conditions for healthy growth.
Lesson #1: Purpose is the Polestar
The concept of a polestar literally derives from the North Star, situated near the North Pole – a navigational beacon for centuries.
Much has been said about the importance of Purpose –
Yet as recently as a week ago, Gallup shared that 6 out of 10 employees could not articulate their company’s core purpose.
WHY is PURPOSE so important to a sustainable culture change?
Change stirs emotional reaction – often driven by fear. Purpose is the antidote to fear – it calls us forward to something more important, noble, or worthy than what holds us back.
People who aren’t clear WHY they’re navigating – or towards what – will slow down or become confused.
For organizational change to stick – your PURPOSE must be a Polestar for “what doesn’t change.”
PURPOSE statements aren’t a substitute for REAL CHANGE.
Any sustainable company NEEDS change…. That’s a given.
But too often, executive teams use “Purpose or Mission Statements” as a “feel-good” exercise in wordsmithing – versus a North Star.
When an organization invests in robust communication to repeat-and-reinforce your enduring PURPOSE – then, change is about EVOLVING to achieve that purpose – not for the sake of “keeping score.”
Think of it this way: If your “Polestar” is in the “wrong” place in the sky based on where you’re going – you need to turn your ship!
When Organizational Change fails, it’s often because people try to move the STAR –
Focusing on changing the program or the training or the consultant, versus leaders looking in the mirror, at how the ship got off course.
An enduring, compelling PURPOSE is the INSPIRATION for sound METHODS of change and growth.
Wondering if your Purpose Statement is compelling and juicy?
- Ask people anonymously, or people you can trust to tell it straight –
- “What is our company’s purpose?”
- “Scale 1-10, how much does it inspire your day-to-day efforts?”
Lesson #2: Leadership Goes First
I’m going to keep this simple: True leadership is defined by follower-ship – and the ability to create more leaders.
Let’s say your kids aren’t doing their chores, or staying out past curfew.
Most parents think “What consequence or lecture will teach them?”
But rarely ask the question “What do WE need to change as parents, in our behavior, to help our kids be more accountable to the rules?” Chances are pretty good, “rules don’t matter” because you’ve demonstrated it.
Culture change in companies is like this –
- It’s an act of Leadership SHOWING the way – more than TELLING.
- This happens through behavior – leaders modeling new desired behaviors –
- Not high-level platitudes or MANDATED CHANGES others must adhere to.
- That’s compliance, not change.
Has your culture change defined the 2 or 3 most essential “BEHAVIORAL” changes needed in the culture? (it’s rarely more than that.)
Let’s take an example:
One I hear often is “stronger accountability across the business.”
- What BEHAVIORS in your organization demonstrate “I’m accountable?”
- Where are leaders SHOWING they hold themselves accountable?
- Where are they NOT SHOWING accountability?
Another example is “Innovation” —
- What are we trying to innovate? Products? Services? Delivery systems? Be clear.
- What behaviors will let us know we are on the right path for this kind of innovation?
- How can leaders demonstrate them? Measure the efforts to foster them?
FORCED CHANGE vs. LEADING BY EXAMPLE (from the top) is THE biggest missed opportunity I have seen in cultural change.
Companies are quick to roll change out company-wide, before they’ve SHOWN people what GREAT LOOKS LIKE, and WHAT to follow. Leaders at the top – with all due respect – CANNOT expect “organizational change” is “outside themselves.”
Leaders who want to see lasting and real change must:
- Define the desired NEW behaviors,
- Ensure THEY are living those behaviors visibly,
- BEFORE asking others to do so.
Lesson #3 – Size Matters
In matters of culture – as in life – SIZE really does matter.
Have you heard of Dunbar’s Number? Based on the work of Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist – and observations of primate social structures; it suggests there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships— relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.
Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.
During change – this idea becomes highly relevant.
In decades of culture change efforts, I’ve never seen large-scale change involving thousands of people, successfully take hold without years of consistent and repeated efforts to “socialize change.” (because whether you admit it or not, no one likes BEING CHANGED – especially at the whims of someone else’s ideas.)
Innovation in companies, has followed the “pilot” strategy for decades.
Since my first culture change project in 2003, I have sought to advise clients on the “Small Change” approach:
Pick one Department, with a leader who’s willing to “Be the Change”… first.
Pilot test “new culture” theories and behaviors with those people.
The purpose of this pilot is simple:
- Test your theories of the changes needed.
- Test your audience’s appetite for digesting them.
The most important output of the Pilot Project Strategy is this:
- Gather solid feedback and input.
- LISTEN and ADJUST your approach visibly – based on that feedback.
Organizational Changes efforts that sustain – do so by understanding the perils of “mandating change” all at once in an organization –
AND understand that “coaxing culture change” is the most powerful enabler or disabler of that change.